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Genetically modified food, explained

Jul 22, 2015, 12:24pm EDT

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  1. What is genetically modified food?

    Genetically modified food (or GM food) is food produced from plants or animals whose DNA has been altered through genetic engineering. These genetically modified organisms are often called GMOs for short.

    Genetic engineering is the process of manipulating an organism's genes directly — by, for example, transplanting DNA from other organisms. It's different from the conventional method of selectively breeding plants and animals to get desired traits. Genetically modified foods have been on the US market since 1994, ever since the introduction of "Flavr Savr" tomatoes that had been engineered to ripen more slowly.

    There's no one type of genetically modified organism — genetic engineering is a tool that can be used for a variety of purposes. Most of the corn and soy grown in the United States has been genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides, so that it's easier to spray fields with weed killer. Other crops have been modified to withstand pests. But genetic engineering could conceivably help create crops that can survive drought, or help produce food that's more nutritious.

    There's a broad scientific consensus that the genetically modified foods currently on the market pose no more of a health risk than regular foods. Still, GM foods are controversial. Opponents argue that genetically modified crops can lead to things like the Bedford Bedford Bedford qUvWEC, or cite problems with the fact that GMOs are owned and patented by large companies. That has led to debates over whether GMOs should be labeled or tightly regulated.

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  2. How do you make a GMO, anyway?

    Let's imagine that researchers wanted to genetically engineer corn to make it resistant to pests. Here's a simplified overview of what they would do:

    1) First, the scientists need to find an organism that contains the trait they would like their corn to have. In our example, they've identified a protein in Bt soil bacteria that can kill pests like rootworm but isn't harmful to mammals. (Farmers have been spraying their fields with Bt for decades, but it can wash away easily.)

    2) They then extract the DNA from the soil bacteria. Here's a list of ways to extract DNA.

    3) Now, the scientists don't want the entire bacterial genome — they just want the specific gene that controls production of the pest-killing Bt protein. So they use a process called gene cloning to isolate and make many copies of the Bt gene.

    4) Next, the scientists may want to modify the Bt gene. This is done in a lab machine by tearing the gene apart with enzymes and repairing certain regions. For example, the scientists might want to design the Bt gene so that only the green leaves of corn produce the pest-killing protein.

    5) The newly modified "transgene" is now ready to be inserted into corn DNA. There are a variety of ways to do this. One method is to use agrobacterium, a type of bacteria that can naturally transfer the transgene to the nucleus of the plant cells. There's also the "gene gun," which essentially shoots very tiny gold particles coated with copies of the transgene into the plant cells. This process often has to be repeated hundreds of times before the transgene is successfully integrated into the corn's DNA.

    6) If and when the Bt gene has been successfully inserted into the corn cells, and a new plant with the trait is grown from those cells, the genetic engineering is done. The new "transgenic" corn is now handed over to crop breeders so they can breed it with other corn in more traditional ways to select for other desirable traits.

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  3. How is GM food different from regular food?

    It might help to distinguish genetic engineering from traditional techniques for producing food.

    Humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals for tens of thousands of years to get certain desired traits. Over time, for example, farmers (and scientists) have bred corn to become larger, to hold more kernels on an ear, and to flourish in different climates. That process has certainly altered corn's genes. But it's not usually considered "genetic engineering."

    Genetic engineering, by contrast, involves the direct manipulation of DNA, and only really became possible in the 1970s. It often takes two different forms: There's "cisgenesis," which involves directly swapping genes between two organisms that could otherwise breed — say, from wheat to wheat. Or there's "transgenesis," which involves taking well-characterized genes from a different species (say, bacteria) and transplanting them into a crop (such as corn) to produce certain desired traits.

    Ultimately, genetic engineering tries to accomplish the same goals as traditional breeding — create plants and animals with desired characteristics. But genetic engineering allows even more fine-tuning. It can be faster than traditional breeding, and it allows engineers to transfer specific genes from one species to another. In theory, that allows for a much greater array of traits.

    Here's a diagram from the Food and Drug Administration that illustrates the two methods:

    (FDA)

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  4. Casual Boutique by Han winter Joy Dress VOOM Why would anyone make genetically modified food?

    For a variety of reasons. Some crops are genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides — such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans — so that it's easier for farmers to spray fields with weed killer. By contrast, Bt corn is modified with a bacterial gene in order to secrete a poison that kills pests such as rootworm. That can reduce the need for chemical pesticides.

    There are other potential uses, too: golden rice has been artificially fortified with beta carotene, to help alleviate vitamin deficiencies in countries like the Philippines. (So far, however, golden rice is still in early phases and has met opposition from protesters.) And many researchers are looking for ways to engineer crops that are resistant to drought.

    Genetic engineering isn't any one thing — it can be used for a variety of purposes. In practice, large biotech companies like Monsanto tend to focus much of their research efforts on traits like herbicide resistance and pest tolerance for major cash crops like corn, soy, cotton, and canola. At the same time, academic researchers, such as UC Davis's Pamela Ronald, are interested in harnessing genetic techniques to boost sustainable agriculture or address world hunger.

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  5. Are GMOs safe to eat?

    So far, there's no good evidence that the foods on the market containing GMOs are any less safe than regular foods.

    The mainstream view on safety: At this point, billions of people around the world have been eating GM foods for decades without any noticeable ill effects. And numerous scientific studies have concluded that the GM crops currently on the market pose no more of a health risk than conventional crops.

    Here's what the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said in 2012: "The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe."

    Likewise, in 2010, the European Commission reviewed a decade's worth of independent research and concluded, "GMOs are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies."

    What that means: Traditional breeding techniques have long altered the genes of plants and animals. That's a messy process. The risk of random mutations and unexpected outcomes has always been present. (To take one example, crop scientists have long used radiation on seeds to induce mutations and improve the odds of getting desired traits.)

    So what most scientific advisory panels have concluded is that the risk of using genetic engineering to alter genes isn't any riskier than conventional breeding when it comes to food safety.

    The dissenters: A minority of scientists still insist, however, that more research is needed before GM foods can be definitively considered safe. After all, genetic engineering isn't exactly like traditional breeding, and it may have downstream effects scientists haven't fully studied.

    For example, in a dissent to that AAAS statement, 21 researchers argued that increased herbicide use — which can occur with crops engineered to be resistant to Roundup — might have health effects we don't yet know about. (That said, many "conventional" crops also require plenty of pesticides. This varies from crop to crop, and simply calling something "GMO" doesn't necessarily tell you all you need to know.)

    Allergies: winter Company Boutique Linen Tracy Ellen Pants 4q5gd1xAnother common question has to do with allergies. Transplanting DNA from other organisms into crops has the potential to introduce new allergens into foods. Companies tend to test for specific allergens, but critics Divided Boutique leisure Jacket amp;M by H A7Z7wqBx1 that it's impossible to test for all unknown allergens.

    One counterpoint, however, is that many traditional foods also carry some risk of allergies, including foods imported from other countries, which receive far less screening. (See here for more on this debate.)

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  6. Are GM crops good or bad for the environment?

    Unfortunately there's no easy answer to this, since it often depends on the crops and how they're used.

    In some cases, GM crops can help farmers use fewer chemical insecticides. In others, they might lead to greater herbicide use or pesticide resistance. On balance, many scientific bodies are unconvinced that GM foods pose a special environmental threat — so long as they're used carefully.

    Here's what the National Research Council concluded in 2010: "Generally, GE crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally." But the report cautioned, "Excessive reliance on a single technology combined with a lack of diverse farming practices could undermine the economic and environmental gains from these GE crops."

    Some GM crops allow fewer pesticides: In some cases, GM crops can benefit the environment. Cotton that's engineered to be pest-resistant can allow farmers to use fewer chemical pesticides. Likewise, the growth of Bt corn in the United States since 1996 has allowed farmers to use fewer insecticides in cornfields:

    (Science)

    Other GM crops can lead to more herbicides — with a caveat: The story is murkier for chemical herbicides used on weeds. Many crops like soy, corn, cotton, and canola are now genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup, a weed killer. That has led to a clear increase in herbicide use in the United States. But there's a caveat here: the herbicide behind this increase, glyphosate, is less toxic than some of its predecessors.

    Joy Boutique Casual Han Dress by winter VOOM Pest resistance and the risk of overuse:The National Research Council also warned against improper use of GM technology: Farmers who plant herbicide-resistant GM crops often use a limited range of herbicides on their fields, which can give rise to herbicide-resistant "superweeds." Similarly, there's evidence that overplanting of Bt corn has fostered a new breed of resistant insects in some fields.

    That said, many conventional crops also re quire herbicides, and those "superweeds" can appear on non-GM crop sites, too. In the end, the National Research Council wasn't convinced that GM crops were inherently riskier, so long as they were used properly.

    Other risks: It's worth listing a few other environmental concerns, as well. The decline of the monarch butterfly in North America has been linked to the increased use of herbicide spraying on herbicide-tolerant crops. There's also the risk that genetically engineered traits still in the testing phase could escape into nature, as apparently occurred in May 2013, when a never-approved strain of GM wheat made its way to an Oregon field.

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  7. How widespread are GM foods?

    In the United States, genetically modified crops have become very widespread.

    More than 93 percent of the corn and soy planted in the United States is genetically modified in some way. Most of that ends up as animal feed, ethanol, or corn syrup — and corn syrup gets into lots of foods. Cotton, sugar beets, and canola are also common genetically modified crops. Roughly 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores contain at least some genetically modified ingredients.

    Animals are a slightly different story. There are currently no genetically modified animals that have been approved for use as food in the United States, although there's a type of GM salmon that's currently awaiting regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Companies have also used genetic engineering to create certain enzymes and hormones for cheese and milk production.

    Around the world, the vast majority of GM crops are grown in just five countries: the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and India. In 2013, more than 12 percent of global farmland (175 million hectares) was given over to GM crops, although growth appears to be slowing:

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    (Nature)

    Here's a full list of the countries that are planting genetically modified crops around the world.

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  8. How are GM foods regulated?

    In the United States, genetically modified crops are regulated by three different agencies. The Department of Agriculture regulates field testing of GM crops for research. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates plants with pest-resistant properties. And the Food and Drug Administration regulates any GM crops that are eaten by humans or animals.

    FDA oversight tends to get the most attention. There's no specific law that regulates genetically modified foods. Instead, back in 1997 the agency created a voluntary "consultation" process for companies that want to sell new GM crops. The companies conduct a safety assessment that identifies the novel genetic traits and determines whether any of the new material could be toxic or allergenic. FDA scientists can ask for additional tests and data as needed. To date, some 96 crops have gone through this process.

    Critics tend to focus on the fact that this safety assessment is voluntary — there are no laws requiring specific tests. Biotech companies often retort that it's not that "voluntary" in practice. They end up carrying out a large number of tests and give the FDA whatever data the agency asks for. (After all, the FDA does have the authority to require pre-market review for any substances not generally recognized as safe.)

    It's worth noting that the European Union has had a much stricter regulatory policy in place since 2003. There, all GM foods must be strictly evaluated on a case-by-case basis before they're marketed. And even after approval, individual EU countries can request to ban certain GM foods from their borders under Smith Shorts Boutique Willi Dressy Boutique Willi qaHwBS. As a result, Europe tends to have far fewer genetically modified crops and foods.

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  9. What's the debate over labeling GM foods?

    Traditionally in the United States, companies have been able to decide for themselves whether to disclose that their foods contain genetically modified ingredients. But that may soon change.

    In April 2014, the Vermont legislature passed the first state law to require labels on all foods with genetically engineered ingredients. The law is scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2016, although food companies are almost certain to challenge it in court.

    It's unclear whether Vermont alone can force US companies to start labeling GM foods — the state is tiny enough that firms could simply stop selling any foods with canola oil, soy lecithin, dextrose, and so forth in Vermont altogether. But in recent years, other states have also been mulling labeling laws.

    Maine and Connecticut, for instance, have passed GM labeling laws — but those are contingent on other states also passing their own laws. Meanwhile, ballot initiatives have been introduced in bigger states like California, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon to require labels on all GM foods. But those proposals have been voted down so far.

    Arguments for labeling: Those in favor of labeling laws, including organic food companies and food activists, argue that people have a right to know what's in their food. Some critics of GM foods, like Tom Philpott, have argued that labeling laws could force transparency on an industry that tends to be dominated by just a few large corporations like Monsanto and Dupont.

    Arguments against labeling: Those opposed to the laws, including various seed and biotechnology giants, argue that the law could lead to higher prices at the grocery store or frivolous lawsuits against food companies.

    Meanwhile, some scientists argue that labeling laws could demonize genetically modified foods in a way that's disproportionate to the risks involved. UC Berkeley's David Zilberman worried that labeling laws might "create a stigma effect" that will hinder future research into using GM foods to improve nutrition or help ameliorate the effects of climate change.

    Labeling around the world: Currently, some 64 countries require labeling of GM foods, including Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Australia:

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    Some studies of labeling laws in Netherlands and China found they did not substantially affect consumer behavior. That said, after the EU required labeling in 1997, many retailers in Europe removed foods containing genetically modified ingredients from their shelves.

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  10. Who conducts research on GMOs?

    The mainstream view in the published scientific literature is that genetically modified foods pose no more of a risk to human health than conventional foods. But that raises a question: who is conducting these studies?

    A good portion of the research on GM foods is funded by the companies developing these products. But there's also a lot of independent research, as well. For instance, the Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA) has documented more than 1,000 scientific studies looking into the safety of GM foods. Of those, independently funded studies make up about one-third of the list.

    There's also the question of research access. Companies like Monsanto typically license out their products to universities for study. But in the past, some researchers have complained that they can't get access, or that permission gets pulled if they conduct a study the company doesn't like. In 2009, however, many companies responded by relaxing their restrictions on sharing seeds for research, although it's still unclear if that resolved all the outstanding issues. See here for more.

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  11. Can GMOs be patented?

    Yes. In 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that genetically altered life can be patented.

    Anyone who buys GM seeds typically has to abide by certain restrictions. For instance, farmers who buy soybeans that have been modified to be resistant to Roundup herbicide sign an agreement saying they will use the seeds for only one planting and won't save the seeds from the beans they grow for a second planting.

    The companies argue that patents are necessary to spur innovation. Critics argue that the patent system has given seed companies disproportionate market power over GM crops — the 10 biggest seed companies now control roughly 73 percent of the industry.

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  12. Who profits from GMO technology?

    The global market for genetically modified crops was estimated at $14.8 billion in 2012.

    Studies differ on how this money is divvied up. One 2010 review estimated very roughly that somewhere around one-third of the total economic benefit of GM crop technology goes to seed and chemical companies. Another third accrues to US farmers. The remaining third is split between US consumers and the rest of the world:

    Seed and chemical companies: Biotech companies have certainly profited from GM crops, not least because seeds and genetic innovations can be patented. Monsanto, for instance, can sell both Roundup herbicide and Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans to farmers, who must repurchase the seeds every year.

    US farmers: Farmers typically have to pay more for genetically modified seeds. However, these new crop varieties can save them time and money in the long run — by, for instance, reducing the need for pesticides and soil tillage, or by reducing crop damage. There is some evidence that farmers who use GM crops receive a discount on crop insurance.

    US consumers: In theory, GM crops should help reduce food prices if they cut costs for farmers or help boost the food supply. So far, this effect appears to be modest: the National Research Council estimated in 2010 that GM crops have lowered commodity prices by 2 percent.

    Developing countries: Estimates on the costs and benefits of GM foods in the developing world tend to be hazy. One study by PG Economics estimated that GM crops raised incomes in developing countries by $7 billion in 2010, but this is hardly the last word on the subject.

    The most common GM crop grown by small farmers in developing countries is Bt cotton engineered to be pest-resistant. Studies have found that some farmers do benefit from these crops, but the results tend to vary based on location and farm type.

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  13. Are genetically modified foods necessary to feed the world?

    There's no easy answer to this question. Proponents of GM foods point out that the world's population is expected to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050, and that humans will need all the technology they can get their hands on to boost crop yields and feed everyone.

    Others, like the University of Minnesota's Jon Foley, have pointed out that there are many other ways to ensure there's enough food for everyone — from curbing food waste to making sure farmers in poor countries have access to fertilizer and modern agricultural methods.

    One related debate here is whether genetic engineering has actually been successful in boosting crop yields. One 2010 study sponsored by biotech firms found that GM technology allowed farmers to grow more food on a given plot of land by making it easier to control weeds. But not everyone agrees. A 2009 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, titled "Failure to Yield," argued that improved conventional methods have been largely responsible for the increase in corn and soy yields in the United States — not genetic engineering.

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  14. What else should I read about genetically modified foods?

    For a more in-depth view on the health effects of GM foods, see this longer study by the Institutes of Medicine and the National Research Council.

    The European Commission has an excellent overview of all the EU-funded scientific research on GMOs conducted in the 2000s.

    Back in 2010, the National Research Council put out a great in-depth study of the environmental benefits and drawbacks of genetically modified food.

    Over at Grist, journalist Nathanael Johnson spent months reporting on the science of genetically modified foods, talking to critics and scientists alike. His conclusion is that "the actual hazard associated with the GM foods is somewhere between negligible and non-existent." But he offered nuanced answers to an array of interesting questions en route to that conclusion.

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  15. You didn't answer my question!

    This card stack is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.

    So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to Brad Plumer: brad@vox.com.

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